Synthetic Biology: Ready, Set, Go!

By Andrew Pollack, for the NYT: U.S. Bioethics Commission Gives Green Light to Synthetic Biology

The president’s bioethics commission says there is no need to temporarily halt research or to impose new regulations on the controversial new field known as synthetic biology.

In a report being issued Thursday, the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues says that at present the technology — which involves creating novel organisms through the synthesis and manipulation of DNA — poses few risks because it is still in its infancy….

A few key points:

  • Self-regulation by biologists is a key recommendation. Good idea, but the details will matter a lot. Science, unlike law & medicine, are not licensed professions. That makes meaningful self-regulation harder.
  • The Report also features a recommendation that scientists in this field receive training in ethics. As an ethics educator, it’s easy for me to cheer for that one. But it’s not immediately clear to me that the kinds of worries that feature prominently in criticisms of synthetic biology — ecological damage, bio-terrorism, etc. — are ones that can meaningfully be dealt with this way.
  • It’s not surprising that opponents of syn-bio have been harshly critical of the Report. On the other hand, the lavish praise heaped on the report by BIO (Biotechnology Industry Organization) worries me somewhat…it makes me worry that the recommendations for regulatory oversight are not as challenging to industry as they might be. In the abstract, I would have liked to see a set of recommendations that BIO saw as tough but fair, instead of as “reasonable, well balanced and insightful.”
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About Chris MacDonald

I'm a philosopher who teaches at Ryerson University's Ted Rogers School of Management in Toronto, Canada. Most of my scholarly research is on business ethics and healthcare ethics.
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